Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books

Algonquin Books  2004

In Outwitting History, Aaron Lansky, founder of the renowned National Yiddish Book Center, tells his personal story as a one-man rescuer of Yiddish books—and along the way provides an accessible, informative and deeply engaging account of the fate of Yiddish in America.

Lansky’s memoir fascinates as it recounts how his relatively simple quest for books, as a graduate student of Yiddish in Montreal in the late 1970’s, turned into a rescue mission of historic proportions. In the author’s own words, it is an “adventure story” involving capers with a truck (invariably in bad condition) and a friend or two, as they respond to late-night telephone calls about abandoned Yiddish books in basements or on the verge of being jettisoned into dumpsters. But the adventure aspect of the book (told with suspense and humor) is intertwined with pathos. As word went out about his interest in Yiddish books, Lansky’s road trips took him to apartments in decaying neighborhoods, where elderly Yiddish speakers waited to entrust him with their legacy. Before he could load up on books, however, he had to load up on kugel and tea, and listen for hours to the old folks’ stories. And what stories they were! After all, Yiddish culture in the U.S. had once encompassed an incredibly vibrant scene of newspapers, theaters, political and social organizations, and publishers of eagerly read literature. By the time Lansky arrived with his truck, the culture’s bloom had faded, and the book donors’ assimilated children had no interest in their parents’ treasured libraries. Lansky allows the reader to discover that his mission wasn’t just about picking up old peoples’ books: it was about receiving a cultural transmission. And he conveys the depth of this transmission through lucid tangents into the development of modern Yiddish literature, the socialist politics of the Jewish Labor Bund and much more. One comes away from this memoir with a sense of the panorama of history through which even the most common Yiddish book has passed. 

Lansky, who won a MacArthur Award for his “simple” idea of rescuing Yiddish books, has performed another important deed with his warm, anecdotal memoir. He tells the story of the National Yiddish Book Center in a way that not only evokes laughter and tears (the emotions most associated with the popularization of Yiddish in America) but also draws the reader into an awareness of the cultural and intellectual riches of Yiddish. Lansky proves, in the words of the great scholar Max Weinreich, that Yiddish “has magic” and “will outwit history”—as long as there are people ready to create imaginative new links in a chain of cultural transmission.

Be sure to check out the Jewish Book Council's "Yiddish Literature" book club reading list.

Discussion Questions

From: Massachusetts Center for the Book 

1. On their first trip to New York to look for Yiddish books, Lansky and his fellow students stop for lunch at the Garden Cafeteria. (Hardcover pp 20 ff). The humorous scene that ollows highlights the central theme of difference and similarity developed throughout the ook. How does difference yield to common cause at the physical and emotional level in his vignette? Where do you find these themes further developed in the book?

2. Characters in this story are dressed in particular and significant ways. How do the clothes help us to understand people, priorities, and cultures in Outwitting History? 3. Lansky describes himself as the man who saved Yiddish books (rather than Yiddish literature). What do books mean to Lansky and to the people who donate them? Look for examples on (HC page 37 and 45). What other passages about the meaning or importance of books did you notice? Do books bear meaning in your family or cultural history? And why did books take on such special importance for Jewish immigrants in America?

4. Why did so many older Jews consider their Yiddish books their yerushe or “inheritance”? How is this concept of inheritance different from or similar to your own?

5. Much is made of the difference between the Hebrew and Aramaic books that scholars read and the Yiddish books that Lansky too often finds heaped in dusty piles of attics and basements. The differences are those of classical and popular culture, of high and low art. How do those distinctions play out in the book? How do other distinctions between high and low culture affect your life?

6. Discuss some of the ways the next generation considered themselves to be "unlike" their immigrant grandparents. Is it unusual to find children more interested in the generation of their grandparents than that of their parents?

7. Lansky describes the National Yiddish Book Center as a "home" for Yiddish books. Where had these books been living before? Why did they need a home?

8. When Lansky wanted to start the National Yiddish Book Center, he came full circle, to Amherst, Massachusetts, where he first learned to read Yiddish. What motivated this choice?

9. What oppositions to a National Yiddish Book Center did Lansky encounter and have to overcome? What were the political and fiscal realities with which he grappled? Do you think most start-up nonprofits face similar challenges?

10. Lansky describes the Canadian immigration experience as a “mosaic” rather than a melting pot. (HC, pp. 227) What does he mean by this? How did American and Canadian Jewish culture develop differently?

11. This is a story, finally, of local heroes, of individuals who make contributions to a larger good. Who is your favorite local hero or what is your favorite vignette from the book? How does this personal story fit into the larger historical context?

12. In the end, do you think Yiddish "outwits" history? Why or why not?

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